When we finally meet Zipporah Lala, we cannot help but be amazed by her courage and resilience.
You see, we had half-expected a broken woman filled with loathing and self-pity; after all, she had been through several brutal experiences that were capable of wiping out every positive human emotion. But there she was, looking self-assured and confident, even flashing a smile now and then.
This 38-year-old mother-of-two is one of the Kenyans whose lives were shattered in the wake of the fighting and killing following the last General Election.
She was driven out of her house and her household goods stolen, including a sewing machine that was her only source of a livelihood. She was also gang-raped and left for dead.
Zipporah, accompanied by her 21-year-old daughter, Lillian Mbithe, has come all the way from Masii in Machakos to Nairobi with a message of peace.
“I want to beg my fellow Kenyans to remain peaceful during the next General Election. Do not be incited by politicians. Are their families living in tents in crowded camps?
“Are they jobless? Were their wives and daughters raped? Or their husbands and sons hacked to death? Do not be foolish. If we fight and kill each other, we are the ones who will lose.”
Zipporah knows what she is talking about; after all, she lost almost everything, including her life. When the violence broke out, she was in her rented house in Ruaraka, Nairobi. She remembers the day as if it was yesterday.
“It was 31 December, 2007, about 8.30pm. I was just about to go to bed when I heard loud noises outside. I rushed to the window and looked out.
“I saw a group of men who had just brought down the perimeter wall surrounding the compound. I saw them break into the landlord’s house using stones and metal rods and loot household goods.
“Some went into the cowshed, and to my shock, they started to chop the animals using pangas, starting with the legs, while some carried away the bloody meat on their shoulders.
“Scared, I double-checked my locked door, praying that they’d go away. Lillian, my first born child, had left for upcountry two days before. Unfortunately, they didn’t go away.
“I heard loud knocks, and several voices demanded that I open the door. Scared and confused, I stood rooted to the spot. Next thing I heard was a loud crash.
“They had shattered the door with a huge stone. Several of them walked in. One of them hit me with a metal bar on the head. I fell down. They got hold of my legs and dragged me out of my house.
“I saw some of them walk away with my household goods, including my valued sewing machine. But that’s not the worst that they did. Those left behind started to beat me up while tearing off my clothes.
“One of then stepped on my stomach with both feet, while another and pulled off my underwear. They raped me one after another. I don’t know how many they were since I kept slipping in and out of consciousness.
"I don’t know how long I lay there unconscious. When I came to, I was in a lot of pain, with a burning sensation all over my body. There was also a heavy smell of smoke. I tried to get up, but could not.
“The pain was too much. With a lot of effort, I managed to lift my upper body. That is when I saw the metal rod that protruded from between my legs. With strength that I did not know I had, I pulled it out and somehow managed to get up.
“I knew I had to get away from that place. I sought shelter in a nearby Catholic church. It is here that I would realise that my attackers had also poured acid on me. Clumps of hair had fallen off and some parts of my skin were burned too.
"When morning came, some women took me to a nearby clinic where my head wound was cleaned and covered with a bandage. However, they declined to offer further treatment, saying that I first needed to report what had happened to the police.
“I reported the matter at the Ruaraka police post, but was informed that I would have to go to my rural home to report the case. Disillusioned, I joined other people who had been displaced from their homes and were camped at the police post.
“The pain on my head and in my private parts was unbearable, but there was nothing I could do. I had attempted to go to Kenyatta National Hospital, but the roadblocks made it impossible.
“By the time help came three weeks later, I was seriously ill since my injuries were infected. Officials from Medecins Sans Frontieres, who visited the camp, took me to Kilimanjaro Nursing Home in Eastleigh, Nairobi, where I was admitted for a month.
"I had become a stranger, even to myself. My memory had become poor; sometimes I could not even recall my name. Any loud bang, noise, or voices of men and the sight of blood would trigger an anxiety attack.
“My heart beat would rise and I would feel dizzy and nauseous and my whole body would lose energy. I would be drawn back to that night when it all happened. I also constantly felt embarrassed, ashamed and guilty for what had happened to me.
"After I was discharged, I went back to the camp. All this time, I had no idea how or where my two children and other relatives were. It was in August 2008 that I started to somehow recover.
“The camp counsellor persuaded me to seek help at Kenyatta National Hospital. I still had not talked about the rape to anyone. When I went to KNH, I was admitted for a week for psychiatric counselling. I was also treated by a gynaecologist. After my discharge, I went through another six weeks of counselling.
"Unknown to me, my daughter had also been raped on the day she left for upcountry. She had arrived just after dark, and was making her way to my mother’s home when a group of men emerged from the bushes.
“One of them held her down as the others attacked her. She was in Form Two then and I only learnt about what had happened when my sister told me that she had given birth.
“I was still living at the camp since it was easier and cheaper to seek treatment from there rather than travel from Machakos to Nairobi, especially now that I no longer had a source of income.
“When I learnt about my daughter’s rape, I felt so bitter, I could have died then. I asked why God had allowed my daughter to go through such pain. Was what I had gone through not enough?
"My daughter called the baby boy she gave birth to in October 2008, Innocent. She did not want the pregnancy. She has always loved school and felt that it had interfered with her quest for education.
“She came to accept the pregnancy when she was almost giving birth. Now there is no doubt that she loves her three-year-old son. Innocent is very precious to her.
"My daughter really inspires me. She is courageous and has a positive attitude. In spite of what happened to her, she managed to go back to school.
“Since I was not in a position to assist her, she had to do manual labour in other people’s farms. She would save a portion of what she earned to pay school fees.
“A year after giving birth, she approached the principal of a nearby secondary school and convinced him to admit her. At first, he refused when she informed him that she would pay her own school fees, but she was not deterred.
“She went back three months later and this time round he took her in. She did her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations last year and scored a grade C.
“She feels that she could have performed much better — she has always wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. But I am proud of her performance, and I keep telling her this.
"My second born, David, is a Form Four student at a school in Nairobi. A well-wisher has been paying his school fees throughout the four years. I cannot express how thankful I am for this.
"We have all come a long way and are much closer than we were before. We see a bright future ahead of us and the fact that we can now talk about what happened without breaking into tears says a lot.
"I had resigned from my previous place of work a few months before the post-election violence and set up my own tailoring business, which was doing quite well.
“I made vitenge, which I supplied to shops in Nairobi. I had invested a huge chunk of my savings in the sewing machine. With it gone, I have had to start all over again.
"However, I am fortunate to have got a job with Amani ya Juu, a non-governmental organisation in Nairobi which assists women like me. We make gift items such as bags, wallets, aprons, earrings, and quilts, which are then sold and the proceeds distributed among us.
“I moved to Wote town in Makueni since I could no longer bring myself to live in Nairobi. Not after what happened. I believe that being far away from where that horrible experience happened has hastened my healing.
"Besides my work with Amani ya Juu, I am also a peace ambassador. With support from the Coalition on Violence Against Women, a human rights non-governmental organisation, I have visited several African countries, shared my experiences, and campaigned against sexual violence and the need for peace.
"What my family and I went through cannot be repaid by any amount of money. Many others like me received Sh10,000 ‘compensation’, which we were informed was to help us rebuild our lives.
“This was a cruel joke, especially since my attackers are probably still out there, going about their lives as if what they did to me was just one of the things they do in a day’s work. The question then is, am I, my daughter, and other women safe if such people still live among us?
"That is why we should not allow ourselves to be pitted against one another again by selfish politicians. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into senseless fighting and killing, we will be the losers — we will lose our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, property, future, and lives.